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WNCC forges ahead with center plans

Sketch of the proposed Wilbraham Nature & Cultural Center at Fountain Park. Reminder Publications submitted image
By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM The controversy surrounding the plans for a new cultural center in Fountain Park is unnecessary, according to Jules Gaudreau, a member of the Board of Directors for the Wilbraham Nature and Cultural Center, Inc. (WNCC).

"We don't want to do what others have done," Gaudreau said. "This won't be edgy, like Northampton. It will be a place for orchestral music, plays and family entertainment."

The 144 acres of Fountain Park originally belonged to the Wilbraham State Game Farm, then the Fisheries and Wildlife Commission. In 1992, the WNCC signed a five-year lease with the town to manage the property, and in 1995 the park was transferred to the trustees of the WNCC.

Larry Fountain, a member of board and after whom the park was named, had a dream from the beginning for a cultural center, according to Gaudreau.

"The whole process started about 15 years ago," he explained. "Seven years ago we started meeting with architects for ideas for a center."

The center's Board of Directors presented their ideas to the Board of Selectmen last year, according to a spokesperson from the town office. There hasn't been much discussion since then, and it is still too early for the Selectmen to have a vote of support for the project.

The Board of Directors has a $4 million fundraising goal for the center. Some of the funds will be used for the rehabilitation of the barn and the construction of an addition to the current structure. The rest of the funds will be used as reserves for future projects at the center, like carpet replacement, painting, etc.

The proposed development areas for the center include an art gallery, classroom space, a large meeting and public hearing space, an outdoor ice skating rink and public restroom space.

"We need to create a sustainable revenue source to maintain the 144 acres of the park," Gaudreau said. "People also need to step up and help out. I've put thousands of dollars and hours into this park, and the people of Wilbraham should try to do the same."

There are several reasons why many residents are concerned about the project. One is about the noise levels that would be generated from shows in the proposed 340-seat theater.

"People should be concerned about what's going on in their neighborhood," Gaudreau said. "But we've been very careful in our plans to take into account the traffic and noise from the center."

He also said that there would be no late-night events. Most shows would occur on the weekends.

The parking lot that would be built adjacent to the building is another area of concern. Gaudreau said that the plans are for a parking lot large enough to hold 200 vehicles.

A parking lot of this size would take up less than two acres, according to a paving crew with the New York State Thruway Authority.

"Ninety-nine percent of the land in Fountain Park will never be touched," Gaudreau said.

Another serious concern is the actual funding for the park. "The board wants to bring in some corporate sponsors with charities, foundations and use state monies that may be available to help raise the funds we need," Gaudreau said. "We are estimating that about one-third of all fundraising will come from that kind of donor, with another third coming from large donors and the final third coming from small donors like the townspeople."

In 2003, the Davis Foundation conducted a community needs study and found there was a need for a venue for community theater, lecture series, music, etc. The Davis Foundation is a public charitable foundation that was established in 1989 by Phyllis C. Davis and H. Halsey Davis of Falmouth, Maine, to support protection of the environment and conservation of our natural resources.

"This area is a black hole for culture, between Williamstown and Boston. A center like the one we're planning will increase the quality of life in this area," Gaudreau remarked, "not to mention property values."

Gaudreau hopes to have the necessary permitting approved for the project by this fall.

A town resident since 1993, Gaudreau is no stranger to the region. He grew up in Springfield and Chicopee. It's Wilbraham that has captured his heart, however.

"I love this community," he said. "I live here. I moved my business here and I've invested in this town." His goal is to leave a legacy for future generations with the cultural center.

"It's just fun, entertaining, interesting and different," he said. "I'm involved in lots of things, but this project is the most important to me."

Gaudreau urges the people of Wilbraham to contact him with any concerns they may have about the cultural center. The next Board of Directors meeting is July 17 at 8:30 a.m. at the Gaudreau Group offices, located at 1984 Boston Rd.